Most animal lovers know that animals make great companions; however, pets are often recommended to reduce loneliness, depression, and other emotional problems. They are used in animal-assisted therapy where there is a specific goal or treatment plan, or in animal-assisted activities with special needs populations. Pets can teach responsibility for taking care of another being, they can help with grief, and they help build self-esteem with their unconditional love. Pets can be parent, child, and best friend all in one. They are nonjudgmental, love attention, and love to play. They provide structure and focus to a daily routine, help reduce anxiety, and are trustworthy companions.
Therapy dogs have been used to cheer soldiers and as visiting dogs since World War II. They have been documented to have beneficial physical effects on patients, such as lowering blood pressure depression. Seeing-eye dogs have assisted humans for many years. Dogs can also be trained to bring items to people and to alert another person in the house if there is an emergency. Animals help people with communication goals in a nonthreatening way and add enjoyment and comfort in animal-assisted activities in a variety of settings.
Animal-assisted therapy is directed by a health professional and is in both used in one-on-one sessions and group therapy with positive results. In particular, animals help humans to increase their interactions with others because people feel more confident and less depressed with them around. They are used in senior centers to help with recreation programs and in other settings to help patients with attention deficit and conduct disorders, autism, developmental disabilities, and Alzheimer disease. Many programs for children include horseback riding as a therapeutic activity.
Animals used in therapy situations are medically examined, taught obedience skills, and are tested on their reactions to human behaviors. While the therapy animal has to enjoy being around and helping humans, great care is taken for the animal's well being. In serious mental health situations, it is important to match person and animal so both will benefit and be safe in the interaction
There are numerous local and national programs that have animal assisted therapy and activities. Among them are the Delta Society with its Pet Partners program, International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, and the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy. Alternative Solutions in Long Term Care, LLC has an inclusive list of links to pet therapy programs on the Internet at http://www.activitytherapy.com/national.htm. My own animals bring me happiness with their goofy antics. I think other pet lovers will agree that their is nothing better after a tough day than coming home to a wagging tail or a nice purr.